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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

School Safety GIS Ups the Ante with Social Media and Georeferenced Floor Plans

August 9th, 2018 by Susan Smith

The U.S. has been rocked by tragic school shootings and other violence over the past years, with very little deterrent to this increasing trend.

At the Esri User Conference 2018, a talk entitled “School Safety GIS – Survey123” was conducted by GIS specialist for Detroit Public Schools, Randall Raymond, and Officer Adele Gardner, Detroit Public Schools Community District Police Department, who outlined the work they have been doing over the past year to use social media and other geospatial tools to detect, analyze and visualize potential dangers to kids in schools.

“We were able to create a social media mapping feed that was out-of-the-box Esri available and discovered while it did what we wanted it to do in some ways, it was very manual and labor intensive,” said Raymond. “You needed someone to constantly be looking at the feeds that were coming in. We partnered with Esri and they suggested a company named DataCapable, that was doing social media for event detection, event notification and event mapping for the power and gas industry. We figured it was the same for a big power company and they would be interested in what we’re doing. They retasked some of what their software does to give us more analytics and give us more understanding of potentially dangerous situations happening at schools by monitoring for specific events. We could use machine learning and artificial intelligence to go through messages and quickly determine the validity of them, confidence in them and decide if there is action that needed to be taken.”

Raymond retired from upper administration in the Detroit Public Schools in 2013 and has continued the work with the school system since that time, helping with high school programs and consulting with their police department. He works with Officer Gardner helping them to continue to learn to use their ArcGIS tools and do more strategic thinking about deployment of police resources.

The value of social media has been long recognized by Officer Gardner, who has extensive examples of problems with kids in Detroit Public Schools and social media being used to organize the meetings where kids to go to events in the city and rob people and steal from cars, etc. But privacy is obviously a very big issue, according to Raymond.

Back in 2009, during Hurricane Sandy when Esri started working with social media mapping, they realized they could map what was going on in social media to see where the flooding and power outages were occurring. “A couple of companies became engaged in social monitoring but these companies began to violate the social media networks terms of service and associated agreements on what can and cannot be done with the data gathered. A case was brought to court in California by the ACLU. Essentially, these platforms were being used by police departments for surveillance and monitoring for events, such as activism, that violated these terms of service. This included providing these organizations with details about specific social media users.”

To prevent such a scenario, the DataCapable platform cannot be used for surveillance, spying, or any use case that violates governing laws. DataCapable complies with their social media partners, data terms including approvals for new use cases and approval for each client leveraging a use case, In some cases, their clients are only approved for event detection (location and event type). This means that no data related to a single person is shared and/or monitored. Raymond says the event detection module is looking for specific event types (outages, gas leaks, active shooter) to determine if there is an event happening at a school system that could put teachers and students in harms way.

“It’s a very tenuous area,” said Raymond. “We’re very cautious about invading privacy, but also I want to know if people are out in the world that are saying things and planning things and doing it openly and freely in a public forum, and we’re not listening to it and paying attention, then we’ll end up with the kind of school shootings we’ve seen in the past.”

Last spring there was a gang fight organized on Facebook and Twitter where the kids were going to gather at a high school in southeast Detroit. 77 kids got arrested because Officer Gardner was aware of what the kids were talking about. She alerted Detroit Public School police officers and Detroit police officers who prevented a lot of violence and arrested 77 kids.

“There are about 1700 known gangs in the database and these are dangerous people. They do strange things,” said Raymond. “Recently five of them were out at night on the freeway and they rolled a tire out on the freeway to watch what happened when a car crashed into it, causing a major car accident. They videotaped it and posted it on their Facebook page. A little bit later they were busted by the police for a curfew violation and they videotaped themselves telling the police fake names and laughing that they had gotten away with this horrendous crime. Officer Gardner was able to identify all five of these people within a few hours and they were able to find them and arrest them.”

Raymond remarked on the scenarios of the Parkland shooting, where the shooter had posted on Facebook, people knew he was a dangerous person, and no one did anything. The same was true in Texas. “Every time one of these events occurs, we find out that the person has openly said they’re going to do these things and when they do them we’re so shocked. We’re trying to create a system that leverages technologies from multiple vendors to find out where the information is coming from, to evaluate it, and try to get out in front of these disaster before they happen.”

Where geospatial really comes in, Raymond said, is when an emergency does occur at a school, most school systems do not have their building floor plans and school classroom information in a GIS format that makes it available to first responders.

“More people have to know what kids are saying,” Raymond said, “We had 22 schools closed on one day because of threats on social media. That’s very expensive to close schools when someone is writing on social media about shooting up schools.”

After the Parkland and Texas shootings, the governor of Michigan announced that the school safety commission was to form, and he allocated $20 million to the budget for the Michigan State Police who are responsible for handing out the school safety grants. In setting up the parameters, they have requested single entry security doors.

“We need to know also what the access points of the building are, what are the classrooms, and I’m hoping we can have some influence now on how these millions of dollars will be spent,” said Raymond. “Let’s have an organized way of collecting these geospatial data layers. Every school building floor plan in the country should be retrievable by Homeland Security and Public Safety and first responders, in an emergency where you have hundreds of kids in a building. You then know what to look for in the building and how to respond.”

At the 2018 Esri User Conference, numerous industries came to together to envision the future of school safety. This included discussions on the role of ArcGIS, weather, event detection, school mapping, and other geospatial tools that align with the goal to promote safety across the U.S. school systems.

Law enforcement was very much on board with the School Safety GIS Initiative at the Esri Conference. They were very pleased at the idea of having access to the floor plan and data layers that are needed. “They are interested in how the empowerment of gang intelligence and student resource officers can help them in their schools and communities,” said Raymond.

“Kids use their own kind of language, particularly in their rap songs, they’ll tell you exactly what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. If you’re not listening to the words that they’re using, and you don’t know the meaning of them, you won’t know. One of the phrases Officer Gardner talks about is “let’s go grab a bag” meaning they might be going to buy some marijuana, go get some lunch. But instead they are talking about let’s go rob some people down in the city of Detroit. It’s organized activity, five – 10 kids, like a wolf pack, figuring out where we should go and who we should hit. So, we have to start listening, and figure out appropriate action.”

Geospatial tools are good for solving complex problems, noted Raymond. “For school districts who don’t have floor plans, we create career technical educational programs, where kids in the school districts are actually building the school safety systems and everybody is engaged in the process of knowing what situational awareness means and know what they need to know about their own house and their school. Pretty soon all the public places are in a system as well. It’s a whole career pathway that isn’t being promoted at the high school level right now. It should be because the workforce can be developed to address these problems.”

DataCapable is an Esri Business Partner that provides solutions and delivers services that align operational data with customer engagement opportunities. DataCapable has put a lot of analytics together and they have a good system for listening for active shooters across country. They are also listening for information on the wildfires in California alert the fire departments of where new flareups. There are other geospatial software companies that have developed this type of system that can support this initiative, and can get involved.

“We already have an alert system that if there’s a lockdown of the school buildings, kids can send a text message through the system saying where they are and if they’re safe or not,” said Raymond. “So, we’re building a lot of features into this system that will directly address school safety, beyond simply just listening and figuring out if we should be at the school in times of danger.”

People in education need to be educated to understand about georeferenced floor plans, and how the building is laid out. “The market of School Safety GIS is a big market and we as geospatial professionals must initiate it and let people know they have to solve it through GIS.”

“We talk of giving teachers guns, but they are a defense mechanism, they are not a preventative mechanism,” Raymond pointed out.

Vendors supporting the initiative need to embrace interoperability of data and be able to provide reports of dangerous situations right into the police or school ArcGIS Online organization account.

“If the system starts picking up the terms the kids are using, it sends text messages to our phones of the conversations that are taking place and then it sends a summary email of what those conversations are to send to any on our team that we want to have that information,” said Raymond. “It goes to police commanders and to various administrators, who have been told how to proceed with this information.”


Congratulations to Kerry-Ann Harriott of Jamaica for winning the GISCafe Sweepstakes at the Esri User Conference 2018. Her prize was a $100 Amazon Gift Certificate.

Kerry-Ann Harriott is a graduate of the University of Technology, Jamaica with a Surveying & Geographic Information Science (Hons). She also holds certifications in Land Surveying as well as focused GIS content. She has amassed several years of experience in the field of GIS; experience which involves GIS implementation, application, training and technical support. This experience as well as knowledge of GIS has spanned across both Private Sector and Public Sector. Kerry-Ann now holds the post of GIS Mapping Officer at the Forestry Department of Jamaica.

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Categories: 9-1-1, 9-1-1 GIS systems, analytics, ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, Big Data, citizen science, cloud, data, Esri, Esri User Conference 2018, field GIS, GIS, government, GPS, handhelds, indoor location technology, indoor mapping, Las Vegas, lidar, location based sensor fusion, location based services, mapping, mobile, mobile mapping, public safety, resilient cities, sensors, situational intelligence, spatial data, survey

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